These days, the world moves at the breakneck speed of 140 characters a second. We expect our news to be the newest, our understanding of the world to be refreshed with the next page view, and our colleagues to update us on every move they make. The world moves quickly – and it moves even more quickly during a crisis.

That’s why using social media during a crisis is critical. When a crisis hits, the demand for information increases, and conversations speed up. If you aren’t responding on social media, you’ll quickly become irrelevant amidst the rising tide of public reaction. In order to remain relevant and play an influential role in the public conversation during a crisis, you’ll need to be engaged on social media. Here are a few tips on how you can do just that.

Be prepared to respond

The first step towards responding to a crisis on social media takes place long before the crisis ever begins. The first step is making sure you’re prepared.
Now, obviously, circumstances will occur that you will be unable to predict. This doesn’t mean, though, that your plans will become useless as new situations arise, or that having plans will slow you down. On the contrary, the best preparation can give you an agile framework that will allow you to respond to new situations as quickly as possible.

One of the most important components of your preparation will be identifying the relevant channels that you should be engaged in and building an identity and voice on those channels during times of normality. Research where your customers and employees go to communicate. Are they on Facebook, or do they prefer the fast pace of Twitter? Wherever they are, that’s where you need to be, too.

Focus on a few of the channels that will be most relevant to your audiences, and work on creating a trustworthy presence with frequent updates, useful information, and a consistent tone. During a crisis, your goals should be to put a caring and compassionate face on the name of your organization and to be a credible source of information. You can go a long way towards establishing these characteristics before the crisis starts.

The second component of preparation is to identify likely crisis situations. Again, you won’t be able to predict everything, but you should be able to identify many of the situations that could possibly occur. Think through the best ways to respond to these, and you’ll be able to save time in the unfortunate event that they do happen.

When the Crisis Hits

So, you’ve prepared, and now the crisis has hit. Buckle your seatbelt – it may be a hectic time, but you can help to maintain order by working through responses sequentially on the following levels.

1. Take care of your employees
When a crisis happens, the first things that corporate relations people worry about are often shareholders and stock prices. While that might seem sensible, those aren’t the first things that you should focus on. Instead, during the first stages of a crisis, you should focus first on working for your employees.

In terms of social media, working for your employees means establishing guidelines for company communications in the event of a crisis. Unless they’ve been instructed to do otherwise, people tend to talk to their friends and family during hectic times, which means that a company’s conversation can quickly become fragmented into horizontal communication lines with a lack of cohesiveness at the top.

Designate a person or a team to be the keeper of information, and make sure that everybody in the company knows how to connect using official channels. Once your employees are taken care of, you can start responding to your customers.

This isn’t selfish; it’s actually the opposite. The practical truth is that you have to take care of your employees before you’re even capable of responding to anything or anyone else.

We witnessed this during a hurricane a few years ago, when many of the employees of a bank lost power in their homes for several weeks. The company responded by buying a one-month membership to the company gym for all of its employees and having a catered lunch everyday. Because of this, employees without electricity at home could get water and a shower, and they also got at least one hot meal a day.

As you can imagine, those actions were incredibly helpful to the company’s employees. With their basic needs met, the bank’s employees were able to continue serving the company’s customers. Take it to heart: respond to your employees first.

2. Respond to your customers
The second level of response in a crisis should be directed towards your customers. On social media, this means engaging in the public discussion to provide input and reassurance.

Social media is a conversation. When a crisis happens, the conversation explodes. Make sure that you are posting updated information on a regular basis. The worst thing that you can do is to keep radio silence. People are afraid of silence; faced with a lack of information, our tendency is to impute our own fears onto the situation, and this causes public conversations to quickly devolve. Having regular updates, even if only to remind people that you are still there, will be worthwhile and comforting.

When responding to customers, it’s also important to keep in mind that everyone has individual needs. People will want to know how a crisis will affect them on a personal level. There’s a balance to the depth of responses that you should give. On one hand, there are always fringes of public conversation that will be outrageous, irrelevant, or even just plain mean. You can’t control everything; sometimes, you need to just let fringe comments pass by. Responding to them may only weaken your voice in the eyes of the public.

On the other hand, though, you can’t have your customers messaging and tweeting at a black hole. Take time to thoughtfully respond to genuine inquiries or concerns, and provide the answers and information that people deserve to know.

3. Comfort shareholders
In the event of a crisis, we’ve already mentioned that there will be immediate concerns about shareholder value. Maintaining this value is important, but when it comes down to it, it’s impossible to do that without first paying attention to your employees and customers.

Tell your shareholders that you’re taking care of your employees and your customers. That will be the most reassuring thing you can communicate to them.

4. Let the conversation end on its own terms
One benefit of the world’s quick pace is that, even in the aftermath of a crisis, there will soon be a “next thing” that will draw public attention. When this happens, the immediate tendency is to breathe a sigh of relief and try to expedite the process of ending the conversation.

In most cases, though, you shouldn’t hurry things along with a closing statement that checks your company out of the situation entirely. Instead, ramp down your crisis support gradually and continue responding to the conversation appropriately while the pace slows down. Finally, questions will fade, demand will shift, and questions will stop coming in. You’ll have made it through the crisis, and people will return to a new normal.

The Postmortem

Once things have calmed down, take the time to review how your strategy worked. Were you able to reach your intended audiences? Did your social media updates play a role in shaping public conversation about the crisis? Which ones got the most positive engagement?

Analyzing your mistakes and successes will allow you to improve your plan for the future, so that you can be even more prepared when the next crisis comes around.

If you’re interested in learning more about responding with social media more effectively during a crisis, consider signing up for our crisis communications training or a consultation on your particular industry. Get in touch with us to find out more.